Gotanda and Meguro: a walk exploring changing times

Although it is often said that Japanese people are change averse, if one looks closely, signs of change, both past and present, are everywhere.  Sometimes the changes are extreme and other times the changes are incremental. This 5-6 km. walk through hills above Gotanda and Meguro stations into the Meguro River valley explores various changes the area has seen over the years. Follow the map at the end of this post, so you don’t get lost.

The first stop is Kiji Shrine, about a 5 minute walk from Gotanda Station.  Be sure to stay on the right-hand side of Highway 1. Although this shrine was founded in the 7th century, it now sits under a modern office building, in a very distinctive set-up.  Take some time to check it out. The shrine was originally called Ebara Shrine and there is an interesting tale about how it got its current name, which means “pheasant shrine”.  According to legend, the third Tokugawa shogun, Iemitsu (1604-1651), saw a white pheasant while falconing in this area (those Tokugawa really loved to falcon!) and, taking this as a good omen, changed the name of the shrine.

Leaving the shrine, retrace your steps about 50 meters and descend the stairs to the street below to reach Hotoji temple. Although this temple was founded in the 15th century, it has only been on this site since the middle of the 17th century because its earlier site was prone to flooding. The temple is particularly popular with fisherman who believe that by praying here they are assured of a big catch.  It also features in a couple of popular 20th century Japanese novels set in the Edo Period (1603-1868).

Next use the tunnel to reach the other side of Highway 1 and follow the map past the NTT Medical Center to your next destination, Ikedayama Park.  This park is the remnants of the Edo Period villa of the Ikeda feudal lords of Okayama.  The park is essentially a bowl-like valley, with woodland on the hillsides leading down to a pond at the bottom. Follow paths, cross stone bridges, and watch the carp languidly navigate the pond. Then climb the hillside and exit the park from the “top” gate. Looking across the rooftops of the now urban valley, one wonders if the entire valley didn’t once look like the park. My, how it has changed!

Again, follow the map to descend a bit and then climb up the other side of this valley, which is now a “tera machi” (temple district). Perhaps a validation of the theory that the entire valley must have once been lush woodland is the fact that the Meiji Period intellectual Fukuzawa Yukichi (1835-1901) specifically asked to be buried at one of these temples upon his death because he thought the valley so scenic.  His remains were removed by his family to a new grave site about 50 years ago.  (Check out my post on Nakatsu, Fukuzawa’s hometown, too.)IMG_4473

It appears that many of the temples in this area were established elsewhere and moved to this site during the Meiji Period (1868-1912) which Buddhism fell from favor as the government used state-sponsored Shintoism to govern in the Emperor’s name and justify Japanese nationalism.

The first little temple you’ll come to, Hozoji, was one of the eight temples in the Zojoji temple compound and was forced to relocate due to the government’s policy. Now it seems to exist largely for the sake of its cemetery.

Around the corner, sitting above Hozoji, is Ryuso-in, another of Zojoji’s original eight temples. Ryuso-in was founded in 1662, with sponsorship from Tokugawa Tsunashige, one of Iemitsu’s sons. The temple took up this location in 1904. The building is a fine example of turn of the century Buddhist architecture. The ceiling in the central worship hall is especially famous for its floral paintings by Ito Shinsui (1898-1972), a well-known Nihonga painter.  Ito’s grave is also here.

Seiganji temple, just across the road from Ryuso-in, seems to play host to myriad Jizo statues, various incarnations of this St. Christopher-like Buddhist diety.

Your next stop is a chance to engage in “forest bathing” at the Institute for Nature Study, a 20 hectare park that has been essentially turned over to nature.  During the Edo Period, the site was a villa and gardens belong to the Matsudaira clan, but now there are just paths for strolling through tall trees and past ponds and marshland. There are also remnants of earthworks believed to have been erected during the Yayoi Period (1000BC to 300 AD) to create a water catchment area. I recommend going clockwise around the park. Each week the staff put out a circular of what flowers are in bloom in the park that week to help you know what to look for.

If you’re up for a very full day, make an extra stop next door at Tokyo Metropolitan Teien Art Museum. While it isn’t every day you can check out Art Deco architecture in Tokyo, the building and its exhibitions deserve plenty of time, so you may want to save this for another day.

If so, just keep following the map past Meguro Station and down the hill to Daienji temple.  Founded in 1624, Daienji is believed to be the point of origin for the “Great Gyonin-zaka Fire” that destroyed large parts of Edo in 1772. Today, this small temple offers an amazing array of gods to worship: the 7 lucky gods, several Jizo statues, the 3 monkeys of “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil” fame and, inside the temple, a life-sized Buddha.

Also on the hillside of the cozy temple grounds are statues of gohyaku rakan, the 500 arhat (disciples) who gathered following Buddha’s death to record the tripitaka, the Buddhist scripture containing his teachings.  These individualized stone statues were carved over a 50 year period following the Great Gyonin-zaka Fire, as a memorial to the 15,000 people who perished in the blaze.  Just in front of the main temple is a statue of a seated Nyorai Buddha with a particularly interesting function.  You can rub gold leaf onto the part of this Buddha’s body corresponding with the part of your body that is ailing and the Buddha will relieve your suffering.  At this point in your walk, might that be your feet?

Continue down the hill, cross the Meguro River and Yamate-dori, and continue on to Ryusenji, also known as the Meguro Fudo Temple.

Meguro Fudo was founded by the renowned Buddhist priest Ennin in 808, making it one of the oldest temples in this area.  While staying near here Ennin had a dream about Fudo Myo-o, the wrathful Buddhist deity whose name means “immoveable”.  Ennin carved a Fudo Myo-o statue to commemorate his dream and arranged for a temple to be built here to house it.  The statue, with its dark eyes, still sits in the main temple on the hill above the gate.  There is a spring on this site that gave the temple its other name, Ryusenji, which means “temple of the dragon spring.”

This is a major temple; take some time to wander around and check out its sights. Even though it is the home of the immovable god, doubtless it too has changed and evolved over the years.

I should note that Ennin’s dark-eyed statue has given the Meguro neighborhood its name, as Meguro means “black eyes”.

Meguro Fudo is your final stop on today’s walk.  From here, it’s an 8-10 minute walk to Fudo-mae train station, where you can catch a train to Meguro and points beyond.

On this walk through modern Tokyo, you’ve had the opportunity to see various historical aspects of the city, many of which have involved change: changing locations, changing names, changing uses, changing times. Yet, even as things have changed, they have also stayed the same, adapting to survive. What a perfect idea for the times we are all living through!

© 2020 and Vicki L. Beyer
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